5) Frosty the Snowman (1969)
Sure the animation looks crude – even by mid-sixties standards – and no question the plotline is paper-thin (hey, you try stretching a 1950 novelty song into a half-hour special), but this festive chestnut still serves as a prime example of the value of good voice-casting. Hiring vaudeville-era entertainer Jimmy Durante to narrate the story was smart, but casting laconic comedian Jackie Vernon to voice Frosty and character player Billy De Wolfe to voice the villainous Professor Hinkle (who even resembles a silent-movie villain) bordered on brilliant and likely speaks to the show’s staying power. Happy birthday, Frosty.
4) The Little Drummer Boy (1968)
A Christmas children’s special that actually depicts events from the Bible? What a concept! Inspired by the popular song and throatily narrated by English actress Greer Garson, this stop-motion special airs infrequently these days but is readily available on DVD and download. In this take, the drummer boy is an angry young orphan named Aaron whose only friends are a donkey, a camel and a sheep. While travelling with a circus, Aaron tags along with three wise men following a star in the sky and ends up in Bethlehem at the same time you-know-who is born. All of which proves the old adage that timing is everything in show business.
3) A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965)
For a show closing in on its fifth decade, A Charlie Brown Christmas still holds up remarkably well. Talk to several different fans of the animated special and each one will give a different reason for rewatching it each year. For some, it’s the jazzy soundtrack by Vince Guaraldi. Others remain entranced by the quaint but detailed animation that even shows the dust shaking off Pig-Pen at the raucous school dance. And still others watch it again to absorb the contrast between the naive Charlie Brown and the brutally cynical Lucy. All told, the program has so much going for it that it actually enables the viewer to readily accept the Bible verse and thudding ecumenical tone dispensed by Linus.
2) Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964)
Just as the song predicted: Rudolph and his shiny nose have gone down in history. This holiday perennial still looks woefully low-tech but faithfully draws huge viewing audiences with each and every airing on U.S. and Canadian television. Very loosely based on the pop tune by Johnny Marks, the story requires instant viewer empathy for little Rudolph, a shy reindeer whose neon beak makes him an outcast in the weird Arctic burg of Christmastown (a.k.a. the North Pole or Santa’s Village). But Rudolph finds redemption and purpose in life with the help of a dentistry-obsessed elf named Hermy and the gruff prospector Yukon Cornelius. Personally, I watch it every year just to revisit the Island of Misfit Toys and see the terrifying Charlie in a Box – just to prove I didn’t dream that as a child.
1) Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1966)
This may be the only animated special that has actually improved with age. Credit the briskly beautiful animation style of cartoon legend Chuck Jones and the all-in voice-work by horror-film icon Boris Karloff, who both narrates and supplies the voice of the green grump determined to spoil Christmas for all the sappy little Whos in Whoville. And even after all these years, there are moments in the special capable of making your eyes water no matter how many times you’ve seen the show. If your heart doesn’t soar when the Grinch’s tiny black heart grows three sizes, well, you might not be a human being.
5) Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol (1962)
It feels mean to take issue with the very first children’s Christmas special ever broadcast in primetime, but this version of Charles Dickens’ tale just looks … really old. Crude animation aside, the story casts the myopic cartoon character Mister Magoo (voiced by Jim Backus, who was a lot funnier as Mr. Howell on Gilligan’s Island) into the role of an actor playing Scrooge in a stage production of A Christmas Carol, but the story itself plays second fiddle to a ceaseless succession of original songs penned by Broadway veterans Jules Styne and Bob Merrill – none of which are particularly memorable. The Magoo special has been revived by several broadcast outlets in recent years. They should have left it buried.
4) The Year Without a Santa Claus (1974)
This special hailed from Rankin-Bass, who previously created Rudolph and other stop-motion classics, but apparently even animation companies phone it in sometimes. The threadbare story opens with Mrs. Claus (voiced by Shirley Booth) telling viewers about the time Santa (Mickey Rooney) had a terrible cold and decided to take a vacation from delivering toys. Two witless elfs, named Jingle and Jangle (seriously), venture into the real world to find kids to convince Santa of the importance of Christmas, but first they get stuck in the town of Southtown, U.S.A., where it never snows. And since the plot has already gone off the rails, it’s mostly about two gnome-like brothers, named Heat Miser and Snow Miser, arguing in song. Truly terrible.
3) Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer (2000)
Some Christmas specials are pointless, while others are shameless or witless. This one is all of the above and so much less. Inspired by an idiotic novelty country-music song, the animated story involves a kid named Jake Spankenheimer (draw your own conclusions from his name) trying to help his parents save the family from their mean Cousin Mel at Christmastime. In all the confusion, Jake is sent out to search for his wandering grandmother on Christmas Eve and discovers that she’s been flattened by Santa and his sleigh. The only thing missing from this cornpone holiday tableau is Larry the Cable Guy.
2) He-Man & She-Ra: A Christmas Special (1985)
It’s not by accident that this one-off special can be purchased for less than $5 at a discount outlet store near you. The story, such as it is: A mishap on the idyllic planet known as Planet Eternia results in He-Man and She-Ra’s sidekick, the annoying Orko, accidentally being beamed to Earth. Orko makes it back to Eternia, but brings with him two Earth kids named Alisha and Manuel, who immediately tell all the Eternians about this fantastic thing that happens every year called Christmas. Somehow, villainous Skeletor catches wind of this Christmas goodness and wants a piece of the action, which necessitates He-Man and She-Ra to turn all heroic and protect the kids. Warning: Watching this special will deduct at least 20 points off your current IQ.
1) Frosty Returns (1992)
This special aired nearly a quarter-century after Frosty the Snowman, but has none of the original’s charm or magic. Set in the fictional town of Beansboro, the story spins off two predictable themes: In one part of town, a little girl named Holly (voiced by Elisabeth Moss, who would later play Peggy on Mad Men) discovers that her old silk hat has the ability to magically animate a snowman named Frosty (voice by John Goodman); at the same time, a nasty old businessman named Mr. Twitchell (Brian Doyle-Murray) is joyful over the invention of Summer Wheeze, an aerosol spray that melts snow on contact. They should have melted all existing copies of this special instead.